Vital Fish & Game Tracking -- or Senseless Red Tape?
A legislative package requiring fish and game guides to register with the state is making progress
By Victor Skinner | Nov. 13, 2021
Michigan lawmakers are taking another crack at legislation to register and regulate commercial hunting and fishing guides on public lands after several failed attempts in recent legislative sessions.
The House Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee held a hearing on the three-bill package — HB 5358, 5359, and 5360 — in late October, marking the first progress on the legislation since the coronavirus derailed momentum last year.
The bi-partisan bills are backed by the state’s largest hunting, fishing, and conservation groups, though the move to impose requirements on those who shepherd novice hunters and anglers isn’t without its critics.
Chief among them is former state Rep. Triston Cole, a lifelong guide in Antrim County, who opposed the effort as floor leader for the Michigan House until term limits forced him from office last year.
“They are hoping it will go because I’m not there,” Cole says. “I was the most vocally opposed.”
Cole contends the effort is “entirely unnecessary” and argues it will ultimately result in disengaging folks from the outdoors, further fueling an overall decline in hunter and angler numbers the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has struggled to address. Cole points out the loss in participation translates into less money to manage the state’s natural resources and argues the legislation will only make matters worse.
“It is another layer of bureaucracy on hunting and fishing in Michigan. It’s a solution in search of a problem,” he says. “It’s just more hoops for people to hunt and fish.”
Others believe it’s a lot more than that.
Mike Thorman, legislative liaison for several hound hunting groups, testified in favor of the legislation last month after years of working with lawmakers and other conservation groups to refine the bills.
“The important thing is, this was and is a sportsmen’s generated legislation,” Thorman says. “It started out being an expensive license, expensive insurance — a lot of conditions that had to be met — and we parred it down … because we didn’t realize how many small operators were out there, and we didn’t want to price anyone out of the system.”
The main purpose of the legislation, however, remains the same: keeping track of who’s hunting and fishing, where.
“There are people who are selling our fish and game, and the (DNR) should at least know who they are,” Thorman says.
HB 5358 spells out registration requirements for hunting guides: first aid certification, no record of felonies or major wildlife violations, and eligibility for a license for the species targeted. The bill also requires guides carry a first aid kit with specific items and would outlaw any work on commercial forest lands.
The bill requires each guide to submit an annual report that includes the counties in which they hunted, the species pursued, the number of clients, and the number of animals taken, as well as “any additional information the [Department of Natural Resources] requires regarding the biological characteristics of the game animals harvested.”
HB 5359 outlines the same provisions for inland fishing guides, though it requires monthly reports rather than an annual report. Those reports would include the fish species targeted, the number of clients and hours fished for each outing, the number of fish caught, whether the fish were harvested or released, and the bodies of water utilized by guides.
The bills are not without teeth, either: The legislation would enable the state to fine guides for providing false information or using commercial forest land. Failing to file a report will cost them, too — from $100 to $500.
Add to that a $150 application fee (which would cover each registered guide for three years). That fee would be waived for licensed charter boat captains, but under HB 5359, fishing guides who use a boat would need a $300 “boating access entry pass” for public access.
HB 5360 tasks the Michigan Natural Resources Commission with “regulating the use of commercial hunting guides or sport fishing guides in taking game and fish.”
Costly? Or overdue? Amy Trotter, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the state’s largest conservation organization, leans to the latter. She says MUCC has supported efforts to regulate guides since the 1990s and believes the legislation requirements aren’t onerous.
“Overall, in the big picture, we’re setting a low bar to get guides registered, so we know how many there are and in what parts of the state,” she says.
MUCC believes it’s important to put something in place both for better understanding the total impact of guiding in Michigan, but also to ensure the safety of novice hunters and anglers who utilize guides,” she says. “It’s also an important tool to collect data on fish and wildlife to help manage them.”
Michigan Trout Unlimited executive director Bryan Burroughs echoes the same sentiments when he testified at the committee hearing last month.
“We have a chance to know how many guides and a little bit about how they are doing business … where they’re going,” Burroughs says. “You ask people to manage these things, so you got to let them know what’s going on.”
Trotter and Burroughs both pointed to the lack of data on Michigan’s inland waterways as an example of how the reports could improve the DNR’s ability to manage inland fisheries.
“It’s really common sense, being able to ask for reports,” Burroughs says, adding that some guides spend 150 days a year on the water. “That’s a lot of information on what’s going on. That’s a powerful thing.”
REACTION ON THE GROUND
Professional hunting and fishing guides offered mixed reactions to the legislation.
Michael Pedigo, an elk guide and founder of the Michigan Guides and Outfitters Association, said he believes “the outdoor industry is changing” to rely more on guide services, and he believes it’s critical that those representing hunters and anglers leave a good impression.
“People don’t have the time to do their own baits and run their own dogs,” he says. “I believe guides are becoming the face of conservation.”
In many cases, “guides might be [a new hunter’s] first exposure,” to the hunting world, and Pedigo believes they “need to be held to a little higher standard.”
“I think this is a step in the right direction,” he says.
Norvel Derickson, owner of TC Bass Destination Charters in Traverse City, agrees.
Derickson operates on both inland waters and the Great Lakes, and he says many of the requirements outlined in the bill are already required for charter captains.
“I feel like anyone doing it for hire, whether it’s inland or Great Lakes, should have to do the same thing, to give the public some assurance the guide is responsible,” he says.
Darren Kamphouse (pictured above with his son and daughter following a successful bear harvest), a popular bear guide near Cadillac, sees things differently.
Kamphouse said bad actors in the bear hunting world “kind of weed themselves out” and he doesn’t believe the public needs the DNR’s help to decide which ones are worthwhile.
“With social media, you get a good idea of who’s doing well and who’s not,” he says.
Kamphouse also pointed out that he already complies with many of the bill’s requirements for a license to guide on federal property — which also requires liability insurance — and all bears harvested in Michigan must be brought in to a DNR check station for an assessment, where biologists collect data and information about the hunt.
“I think it’s a whole lot of extras to not get what they’re wanting to get,” he says. “Bear numbers — they already know all the numbers; it doesn’t really matter if a guy gets a bear with a guide or by himself.”
Cole echoes the same points.
“It just goes back to why do we need it, and I fail to recognize why we need it,” he says. “When they check in the animals, they can ask the questions.”
In October, lawmakers heard testimony in support from MUCC, the Michigan Hunting Dog Federation, the Department of Natural Resources, the U.P. Sportsmen’s Alliance, Michigan Trout Unlimited, the Michigan Guides and Outfitters Association, and other groups. There was no opposing testimony.
Thorman says those working on the legislation addressed the majority of concerns about the bills from most hunting and fishing groups in recent years and he’s hopeful the broad support will put the package over the top during the current legislative session.
“Basically, we’ve covered the bases with all the sportsmen’s groups,” he says. “We’re not trying to create bureaucracy … it’s just the basics — how many people are guiding and the impact they’re having on the resource.”
Regardless, Cole contends the bills will still need the approval of most lawmakers in both houses, and there are several he expects to vote against the measure.
“My conservative colleagues in the House and Senate are probably opposed, as well,” Cole says.